By A.L. Yoder
A speck of dust landed in my nostril, waking me up in a fit of sneezing and coughing. I was slumped against the wall. I hadn’t meant to fall asleep, and the muscles in my back protested my awkward position as I braced myself on the windowsill and stood up.
I pulled back the curtain a few inches, trying to gauge how long I’d been asleep. Outside, only a faded streetlights stayed awake.
I let the curtain fall back as I looked around the detritus of the room, the debris of my search, and took a deep breath.
Boxes and boxes and boxes scattered, some fallen, their contents bursting forth. I grabbed the closest one, and ripped at the tape.
The reels in this box were heavy, and I struggled with them, my hands aching from doing this thousands of times.
This attic was already covered with miles of film tape and disturbed dust. Some I’d thrown, in fits of anger and frustration—
“God damn it!”
—and now it looked like a prank, millions of memories strewn around like trash, casting shadows of blurred negatives on the walls. I was standing in the middle of every memory I’d ever had, looking for the worst.
The film whined as I pulled it off the reel, and I squinted up to the light. This was wrong. Again.
The wrong time, the wrong place, the wrong age. I tossed the entire reel away from me. It skittered across the warped attic boards that groaned as the reel stopped.
The next box was ruined, the negatives slipping against each other, bursting out of their frames and skipping entire sections.
“Drunk,” I sighed. I dug deeper into the box, but they were all like that. There had been a time where that was too common. I threw those reels against the wall, and one of the stretches of film fell across the meager lamp in the corner. The weak wattage combined with the drunken memory and made a smoky pattern on the wall. I left it where it was.
Boxes and boxes and boxes. Nothing. I was so tired of doing it; I wasn’t even enjoying the gems I was finding buried up here, lost beneath the piles of minutia I’d stacked on top of them as I’d gotten older.
Redwood trees, growing into eternity. Me, walking with my head as back as far as it would go, trying to take in the scenery. I cast the beauty of northern California aside, but I saw a flash of a smile. I knew it was my best friend, who’d taken me on that trip, marching in a rainy parade.
Here. This reel. This had to be it. I squinted, looking for my father, the hospital walls, those damn fluorescent lights. There I am, getting a cappuccino, two sugars.
My throat dried out, suddenly full of the dust and weight of this upstairs attic room, as each frame got me closer to what I needed.
My father, head in his hands. He talked in the next frames, but I knew the sound would be distorted. Memory was funny like that.
I grabbed my dad around his chest as he hit his head on the wall, dragging him away. There were people in this frame that I didn’t remember seeing, but there they were.
We composed ourselves, frame by frame, then walked into the intensive care unit. My dad had a tote bag on his shoulder. What was in it? Clothes, maybe.
“This is the one,” I whispered. I pulled the scissors out of my back pocket and took a deep breath. I had to be careful now.
There she was, lying in the hospital bed. I stood in the doorway as my father rushed to her. She was crying. Everything was wrong in that moment. It wouldn’t get better for weeks. Millions of moments would be all wrong.
But this was the moment. Which frame? Which frame…
I picked the one where my mother was in full view for the first time. She would look worse in the coming days, recovering from brain surgery, head shaved, staples holding her skin together over the plates and screws keeping her skull in one piece.
My hands shook and I ran the film through my left hand, looking for the break, the exact frame I needed. Hours and hours of searching came down to this cut, and I couldn’t even look.
I lined up the scissors, closed my eyes, and shuddered at the sound of my memory being severed in half. The negative fell to the floor, scissors clattering after it, and I opened my eyes.
The room heaved, everything in it shifting and rearranging. I stood in the middle of the chaos, watching my memories fly around. I’d broken them to fix myself.
The last to go was the frame I’d just cut, and I watched as the hallway zoomed away to the wall by the window, and the hospital bed rushed to the wall by the door. The same moment, broken in two.
The stillness was more powerful than I expected, and tears spilled onto my tired cheeks.
I walked to the door of the attic, finally ready to leave. I looked back at the mess I’d made, how organized it looked. How now, everything in my life was sorted into two categories:
Before on one side; on the other, after.